Popping the Belmont Balloon
There are different ways to let the air out of a balloon, but the fastest is to prick it with a pin. That’s what happened to the Belmont Stakes and Triple Crown balloon late Friday morning with the stunning news that Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another would not be running on Saturday for a chance to become horseracing’s 12th Triple Crown winner.
I first heard about what turned out to be a career-ending tendon condition – the early onset of tendonitis in the left foreleg – from Scott Hazleton of HRTV when it was still in the rumor stage, around 10:45 a.m. The network was about to go on the air and trying to get the rumor confirmed or denied. I checked immediately with a high-ranking official in the New York Racing Association racing office who assured me he was completely unaware that the son of Flower Alley had any kind of physical problem.
In the few minutes it took to go from the racing office to the office of NYRA communications director Dan Silver, it was apparent the rumor was well founded. Silver couldn’t comment beyond saying a press conference with trainer Doug O’Neill and Paul Reddam was scheduled for 1 p.m.
O’Neill, meanwhile, was confirming the situation on radio with sports talk host Dan Patrick. Twitter was soon lit up with the news, which spread like wildfire. There were long faces throughout Belmont Park.
The injury and retirement of I’ll Have Another deals a multi-faceted blow to horse racing.
First, there are those people whose lives were uplifted by I’ll Have Another, from O’Neill and his brother Dennis, to owners Paul and Zillah Reddam, to the people who worked for Team O’Neill, and even to Hope Hudson, the young Missouri girl with a rare disease who was invited to come along for the joyride during the Triple Crown as part of a Make a Wish Foundation venture. They were all so close to becoming part of horse racing history.
Then there is the New York Racing Association, which was pinning its hopes on an enormous crowd – possibly exceeding the 120,139 who came out when Smarty Jones’ Triple Crown bid was ended by Birdstone in 2004. The other recent Triple Crown attempts brought out 94,476 in 2008 (Ta’ Dara upset Big Brown on an extremely hot, humid day), 101,864 in 2003 (Empire Maker beat Funny Cide on a rainy afternoon), 103,222 in 2002 (Sarava upset War Emblem).
Non-Triple Crown Belmonts in recent years have ranged from an attendance high of 73, 857 in 2001 when Point Given won the Preakness and Belmont to a low of 45,243 two years ago when Drosselmeyer won and neither Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver nor Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky was in the starting field.
All seats reportedly were sold out in advance, but the walk-in attendance is big on Triple Crown attempts. Conventional wisdom suggests a Triple Crown try is worth about 40,000-50,000 people. With $10 general admission charges that’s upwards of $500,000 NYRA probably was counting on. Add to that the loss of on-track concessions, along with an expected drop in pari-mutuel handle, not just at Belmont Park but in nationwide simulcast and ADW betting, and on-track concessions at Belmont Park.
Triple Crown days aren’t just big at Belmont Park. From Hastings Park in Vancouver, Canada (the second home of I’ll Have Another’s jockey, Mario Gutierrez), to Gulfstream Park in South Florida, track managers throughout North America anticipated a surge in attendance, wagering and concessions as I’ll Have Another made his bid for history.
NBC Sports can expect a significant drop in ratings for the Belmont telecast now that I’ll Have Another has been scratched. Production crews will be scrambling between now and late Saturday afternoon to produce new storylines and features for the telecast.
Coverage of the race on print and television will also take a hit. Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden said editors told him a Triple Crown win would mean a cover story and eight pages inside the magazine. After the scratch, he wasn’t even sure Sports Illustrated would publish a feature story on the Belmont.
Critics of horse racing will use the injury as additional ammunition against the sport, even though O’Neill made a decision that was in the best interest of the horse. When you put the horse first in making those tough decisions, it’s also in the best interest of racing. O’Neill and Reddam deserve praise for their handling of the situation.
“This is extremely tough for all of us,” O’Neill said when he led off the press conference confirming I’ll Have Another’s retirement. “Though it’s far from tragic, no one died or anything like that, but it’s extremely disappointing for the whole team.”
“It’s a bummer,” said O’Neill’s California friend, Mark Verge, the CEO of Santa Anita Park. “But Doug’s right. It’s not a tragedy. A tragedy is when you see a young kid in the hospital with cancer and two days later they’re dead.”
That does put things in perspective.